Look at the images coming from survivors in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and you see people wading through water with their pets in tow and rescuers hauling dogs onto boats along with their owners. Unlike with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many people weren't forced to leave their animals behind as they left their homes to find shelter from rising floodwaters. But there are still plenty of images of dogs, cats and other animals stranded and lost.
Animal owners and rescuers certainly learned lessons from Katrina. While an estimated 15,000 pets were rescued by the New Orleans SPCA, according to CNN, a whopping 90,000 area pets were never accounted for, with some sources saying an estimated 600,000 dogs and cats were displaced or died as a result of the storm.
Now, after Harvey, animal rescue groups like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, Best Friends Animal Society and many other organizations are working together to avoid those losses.
"We learned a lot since Katrina and just wanted not to repeat those mistakes," says Ric Browde, president and CEO of Wings of Rescue, which flies animals from overcrowded shelters to no-kill facilities in other parts of the country. "We set up a strategy before the storm so we were ready and now you're seeing it in action."
Making room for lost pets
Some people wrongfully assume that the dogs and cats being taken out of storm-impacted areas could be unclaimed family pets. But rescue groups and shelters are moving out animals that were already in their care before the storm in order to make room for pets that were displaced by Harvey. The pets that are being moved were strays or owner surrenders that were already waiting to be adopted.
Austin Pets Alive!, the largest animal shelter in the country, started contacting shelters along the coast, making plans to move their animals to safety long before Harvey hit. They transported all the animals to their facility, two and a half hours away, and when that became packed, fosters stepped up to take in the animals that were already in the shelter. So far, 2,000 animals have come into the facility's care, and they've also set up a temporary shelter as animals keep on coming, says Mary Heerwald, director of communications.
The goal is to reunite them with their owners, not to send them to new homes.
"We are not interested in adopting out animals who have a potential owner," says Heerwald. "Any lost, stray, or any situation where an animal might have a potential owner, we are committed to reuniting them with their family. To us, first and foremost, the goal is to ensure these animals live. Also deeply important to us is ensuring that dogs and cats who have families go home to them."
The ASPCA was also on site a few days before the storm, preparing for rescues, stockpiling supplies and making plans to shelter animals. One of the first things they did was move 150 dogs and cats out of the shelter in Galveston to make room for the influx of animals they knew would be separated from their owners in the storm.
"The animals that are being transported are shelter animals that had already been there and not people's pets," says Tim Rickey, vice president of ASPCA Field Investigations & Response. "It is a critical function of this type of response to move those animals out and create critical space. Without that, there is nowhere for these animals to go."
So far, Wings of Rescue has moved about 1,000 dogs and cats that were already housed in shelters in Texas and Louisiana to no-kill facilities all over the country. They've flown to San Diego, Chicago and Seattle, as well as Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin, Colorado and New Jersey.
"We really check the records... when the pet was impounded, when they came in," says Browde. "We're not even allowing owner surrenders. The last thing we want to do is take anybody's pets."
Despite the hard work and best intentions by the animal rescue groups and shelters, rumors keep circulating on social media that pets are being adopted away from owners and animals are being euthanized. These are stories that all the groups say are categorically untrue.
The Houston SPCA even had to address rumors on Facebook:
"The Houston SPCA has been the subject of a vicious and false rumor that claims that we are euthanizing the very animals we are currently rescuing. This is unequivocally false. Our teams on are on the ground working tirelessly to rescue, care for and reunite pets with owners displaced by this catastrophe...We all have come together as a community to save countless lives as Harvey’s aftermath continues to plague parts of our city and surrounding areas. We are on the ground, and in boats, searching and rescuing for all animals who are in need, caring for them by our team of vets and working towards reuniting them."
Lost and found pet resources
A dog is examined after the storm by a team from the Houston SPCA. (Photo: Houston SPCA/Facebook)
Because so many groups have been helping with the rescue effort, wandering dogs and cats have been picked up and housed in shelters and makeshift shelters in various places affected by the storm. Rescue organizations say they have been assured that a comprehensive lost-and-found database is being developed for all Harvey pets. Until then, there are several sites and tools available for people who are looking for a lost pet or want to list a pet that they've found.
Hurricane Harvey All Lost & Found Pets - This Facebook group posts photos and information from a variety of sources including shelters, Craigslist and individuals. It's powered by Helping Lost Pets, which works with a massive network of volunteer groups nationwide that share information on social media.
Finding Rover - The app uses facial recognition to search shelters for lost pets.
PetHarbor - Photos (when available) and descriptions of pets found after the storm
Shelter websites - Various shelters in the area, like the Houston SPCA, have listings of dogs that have been brought in since the storm hit.
The next wave of help needed
Over the next few weeks, the hope is that pet owners will find their lost animals, but there will likely still be many animals that won't be reunited with their families.
"We can't assume all these animals are going to be reunited," says the ASPCA's Rickey. "We're certainly hopeful, but we know reality."
That's when more assistance will be needed. Although animal groups are reticent to put a strict time frame on how long these displaced pets might be held before they are adopted out, they imagine that it will probably be about 30 days before the animals may need to find new homes. Then they may need help from shelters or rescue groups throughout the country that can help get them adopted.
"We're a little ways out from that phase, but it's on everybody's mind. It's the next big activity and it will go on for some time," says Rickey.
Rescuers sincerely want to reunite pets with their families, but at some point down the road, there may be a new objective in mind.
"For the pets who really don’t have an owner coming for them, we need to find homes for them too," says Heerwald. "They deserve not to spend six months waiting in a kennel for a family that's not coming to get them."